DENVER (AP) – Congress may seem stuck in endless partisan gridlock, but it’s a different story in Colorado’s Legislature. Democrats have consolidated control of both chambers and the governor’s office, and the 2013 session could see a flurry of legislation after two years of divided control, tight budgets and little significant change.
Lawmakers will tackle issues old and new this year. Democrats want to revisit proposals blocked by Republicans in 2011 and 2012 – especially civil unions for same-sex couples and giving illegal immigrants who grew up in Colorado a break on tuition at state schools. Democrats could also try to overhaul the state’s confusing tax rules and procedures for funding schools.
Last year’s theater shooting in Aurora has Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and many of his colleagues talking about gun control measures, including ammunition limits and better ways to identify would-be gun buyers who have mental health problems.
Lawmakers will also address marijuana legislation. In November, voters approved a constitutional amendment that not only legalized pot, but required state officials to regulate its commercial sale. The amendment calls for a new excise tax on recreational pot.
The Associated Press sat down with legislative leaders from both parties for a look at what will make news this term.
Democrats are expected to pass civil unions for same-sex couples early in the session, granting gays rights similar to marriage. House Republicans blocked legislation last year with a filibuster one day before the session concluded in May. That contentious ending prompted a special session in which Republicans defeated civil unions again, energizing gay rights activists who supported Democratic candidates in November.
Democrats also plan to pass a bill to lower the tuition rate for illegal immigrant students who graduate from Colorado high schools. Currently, the students pay the out-of-state rate, which can be more than three times the resident rate. In the past, Democrats proposed a tuition category that allows illegal immigrants to pay more than legal state residents but less than out-of-state students.
Hickenlooper supports both measures.
GUN CONTROL AND DEATH PENALTY
The mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school and the Aurora movie theater will make gun control one of the most heated topics this session. Democrats plan legislation to curb access to firearms. Some possibilities: Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and making mental health records immediately available for background checks.
Hickenlooper has said now is the time to debate gun control. He has not endorsed specific proposals besides calling for better background checks for the mentally ill.
It’s also likely that lawmakers will look at repealing the death penalty. In the past, the measure has failed.
Pot legalization brings a long list of issues for lawmakers to settle. They must tweak state criminal code to allow adults over 21 to possess marijuana and come up with an excise tax on recreational pot. The constitutional amendment calls for the pot tax, which will need to be approved by voters. The money would go to school construction.
Expect proposals to set driving-while-high standards similar to drunken driving laws. There could also be efforts to address “on site” marijuana consumption that could determine whether Colorado develops Amsterdam-style pot cafes.
Legislators have been talking about big education changes for decades – and they’re going to try to untangle Colorado’s complicated rules for how schools are funded. A kaleidoscope of voter-approved tax measures has put public schools on a downward funding slide for years.
The state’s largest teachers group wants to see lawmakers finally revamp school funding formulas. But it won’t be easy. Any changes will likely require voter approval and higher taxes – no easy sell.
Colorado is ahead of the curve on many aspects of the Affordable Care Act. But there’s more work to be done.
Lawmakers will keep an eye on the developing state insurance exchange, a new marketplace for health insurance shoppers.
Hickenlooper, meanwhile, will ask lawmakers to make significant Medicaid changes to provide health assistance to more low-income adults. Medicaid expansion is a key goal of the health care law. Expect Republicans to balk at Hickenlooper’s argument that Colorado can afford it.
Lawmakers begin the session with the brightest economic outlook in recent years. Tax receipts for the general fund controlled by lawmakers are projected to be $8.1 billion for the fiscal year that began in July. The fund now exceeds, albeit barely, the pre-Great Recession peak of $7.7 billion in 2007. More money has gone to schools as a result, but not enough to keep up with enrollment and inflation over the last five years.
Still, there appears to be more money for programs – and less room for lawmakers to fight.
Most general fund spending goes to education, Medicaid and prisons.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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